One More Drink, and I’ll Move On (Conundrum Couloir)

Mountain(s): Conundrum Peak (14,060′) and Castle Peak (14,265′)
Route: Conundrum Couloir (Steep Snow)
Date: July 11, 2015
RT Distance: 14.5 miles
RT Gain: 4,850′
RT Time: 10 hours
Climbers: Ben, Jeff

Summer is here.

It’s crazy how fast the Colorado mountains transitioned from buried to dry. Most standard 14er routes only require a few short snow crossings these days, which is hardly believable after all the late-spring moisture. The wet weather made for a weird couloir season, with the window between “avalanche prone” and “rage-inducing scree field” short and difficult to judge.

Few traditional snow couloirs remain in mid-July, but what’s left is generally safe. Ben and I decided to attempt one more before the soaring summer temperatures claim the last of the continuous snow lines. My original idea was Cross Couloir on Mt. of the Holy Cross, an incredibly famous route that’s gathered dust on my to-do list for years. Ben, who’s trying to finish the 14ers this summer, was more interested in two new checkmarks on Castle and Conundrum. A few minutes of research uncovered that Conundrum Couloir, another classic option, was likely still filled. A plan was born.

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Our intention was to meet in Golden around 3 p.m. and depart directly from my office at the American Mountaineering Center. That would give us plenty of time to establish a camp, start a fire, drink a couple beers and catch up. Unfortunately, Ben got stuck at work and then in the heinous Highway 93 traffic. He didn’t get to my office until shortly after 5 p.m., which might be the latest anyone has worked at the American Mountaineering Center on a Friday since at least 2009.

The result was arriving at the Castle/Conundrum trailhead around 9 p.m. My low-clearance 2WD Mazda 3 could only make it up the road far enough to reach the first four campsites, all of which were inhabited by squatting retirees from Texas. We limped back to the pavement and debated our options. Signage made it obvious that no camping is allowed apparently anywhere, ever. Given the late hour and our 3 a.m. wake-up call, we figured no one would notice if we just set up our tents in the corner of the parking lot. It meant packing all our gear first thing in the morning rather than leaving it up to dry, but our assumption was correct. We snagged a few uninterrupted hours of unsanctioned sleep. Don’t tell anyone, Internet.

Rather than risk my car’s oil pan to crawl a half-mile up the road, we decided to hoof it from the paved highway. Sunrise greeted us a couple hours later high in Montezuma Basin, well beyond the Pearl Pass turnoff. Pre-dawn road walking is an easy way to pass miles and time.

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Our solitary vigil ended along with the road. A pair of solo hikers caught us while I was transitioning from trail runners to mountaineering boots, and a brave soul in a stock 4Runner arrived carrying a full cab of hitchhikers. Our newfound crowd began moving up the snow-covered headwall together. Ben and I opted for crampons and a direct line up the snow, while others found a more-or-less dry path through the rocks.

A big push up steep terrain delivered us to the upper cirque, where Conundrum Couloir was beautifully filled. No decision needed to be made here. We’d stick with the original plan.

Surprise cloud-cover, a steady wind and the early hour meant firm snow conditions. The moderate apron quickly gives way to steeper terrain, and the morning fog dissipated from our heads as the need for focus increased. The choke point about halfway up turned out to be the crux. The angle hovered around 50 degrees, and the inset nature of the section meant a general lack of sun. The hard snow meant Ben could only produce minuscule steps, which I did my best to widen with a few extra kicks. Solid ice ax self-belays did provide an extra measure of confidence and security.

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The angle relaxed slightly as we climbed above the choke point and approached the massive cornice. This late in the season, an easy exit existed on the right. A few more feet of 50-degree snow deposited us on the saddle between Conundrum’s twin summits.

We scrambled up to the high point and enjoyed the rare summer solitude. Castle was beginning to look crowded, and a few people had started to traverse over, but for about 20 minutes we had the top to ourselves. The multiple forecasts calling for calm and sunshine looked worse by the minute, with clouds building and an incessant breeze that forced us into down jackets. Still, we were treated to inspiring views of the surrounding Elk Range giants.

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The fun was over for the day, but Ben also needed Castle Peak to notch his 53rd Fourteener. Rather than blissfully glissade the Castle-Conundrum saddle for a quick reunion with beers and burgers, we had to slog up a couple hundred more feet of crumbling Elk rock. It was all worth it, of course, to stand on the range’s highest summit. Stellar views of Snowmass, Capitol, the Bells and Pyramid were a worthy reward. We spent another 15-20 minutes snapping photos before the worsening weather urged us to retreat.

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We opted to take the standard Northeast Ridge down to complete a loop of the cirque. A couple hundred feet below the summit, I was shocked to hear a female voice casually say, “Hi, Jeff.” Standing just below were Zach Smith, Noel Finta-Johnson, and their hiking partner Joe. Random encounters with friends in the mountains are always welcome.

A graupel storm kept the descent interesting. The weird weather would hound us all the way back to the car, alternating between blistering sunshine, pouring graupel and brief rain showers. The crux of the day was deciding what layers to wear while walking down the road.

I might have gotten a late start, but I was able to salvage a bit of this couloir season the past couple weeks. Classic routes like Conundrum Couloir are a great reminder of the joys of steep snow. The crampons and ice ax will now get shelved for a few months before the fall ice season begins, but it’s hard to feel depressed with summer scrambling, multi-day backpacking rambles and long nights around the campfire with good friends on the horizon. Winter is coming, but summer is here. Might as well enjoy it.

Cornice Busting on Southpaw Couloir

Mountain: Torreys Peak – 14,267′
Route: Southpaw Couloir
Date: July 3, 2015
RT Distance: 8 miles
RT Gain: 3,000′
RT Time: 6 hours 45 minutes
Climbers: Speth (speth), Adam, Jeff

This snow-climbing season was disappointing. Between major life changes, a new puppy, a minor finger injury and the unsettled weather, I accomplished almost none of my goals. I hardly climbed at all in May and June, even missing the Spring Gathering and the past several happy hours. “Stir crazy” doesn’t even begin to describe it. With Friday off for the Fourth and an acceptable forecast, I pinged Speth and Adam about climbing Mt. Edwards via the Goatfinger Couloir. They immediately agreed.

The need for an early start and time constraints (this spring’s theme) Saturday led to us driving up Friday night to bro out around a campfire at the Stevens Gulch Trailhead. It was car camping at its finest, complete with a brick-walled fire ring and wooden benches. A few IPAs, many Dave Chappelle quotes and a magnificent sunset later, we were ready to crash in anticipation of a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call.

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First light saw us high in Stevens Gulch staring at a half-dry Goatfinger. Lost Rat was melted out at the top as well, and Dead Dog appeared to be limping along. Looming beautifully in front of us, however, was a fat-looking Southpaw.

This couloir, which is shorter and steeper than the more famous Dead Dog, is seldom climbed because the exit is guarded by a menacing cornice. We stared at it for a while and decided that, this late in the season, a few reasonable options existed to surmount the final obstacle. All I knew about Southpaw was that it wasn’t supposed to be terribly steep and that Moonstalker wrote an excellent TR a couple years back. We set off without a ton of beta, and like any such adventure, the result was equal parts joy, laughter, terror, adrenaline and accomplishment.

Southpaw begins with a long, mellow 30- to 35-degree apron. We were shocked and thrilled to find surprisingly good snow conditions. The angle gradually increases as you ascend, culminating in a 50ish-degree finish to the vertical cornice.

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The climb itself was simply amazing — supportive snow, attention-keeping yet easy terrain, and copious jokes relevant to 30ish-year-old “grown” men. As we neared the top, the two exit options looked to remain feasible. We hugged the right side of the couloir to avoid an unstable Volkswagen-sized block and eyed a less-than-vertical ramp just to its right for our escape.

Adam, in the lead, was the first to reach the cornice. The ramp we’d chosen comprised only about four-to-six feet of 70-degree snow. A couple swings, a few kicks, and we’d be over the top. It quickly became apparent that our optimism was going to go unrewarded. Unlike the rest of the couloir, the snow on the cornice was 100 percent pure garbage.

IMG_4637After Adam deemed our intended finish too dangerous, I started peering over my shoulder and weighing our retreat options. The first 200 feet or so was steep enough to require face-in downclimbing, and the snow conditions were deteriorating rapidly. Still, it seemed reasonable.

A horizontal two-foot-wide ledge of snow, ice and scree also caught our attention, as it led to a spot where the cornice was only about three feet high. If we could reach it — which would require several delicate moves across exposed Class 4 terrain — it seemed like it would go. Speth led across first, balancing on crampon points and grasping for anything that resembled trustworthy rock. He made it safely to the ledge and disappeared around the corner. Adam went next, talking himself through the balance-y moves. Only a few tiny islands of solid rock interrupted the 50- to 55-degree scree and snow. Without much in the way of handholds, it was a mental battle to trust your frontpoints and shimmy across. A few sections of thin ice that took a pick or point provided extra security.

Adam reached the ledge and talked me through the traverse, which I completed with only minor whimpering. A couple deep postholes kept the pucker factor high while crossing the snow ledge, but before long we found Speth standing on terra firma above the cornice. He offered a hand to help us over the final waist-high wall, and we all collapsed into a heap on the standard trail near two frat bros sipping PBRs. Welcome to summer on Grays and Torreys.

IMG_4638We stayed put for a while, giddily releasing adrenaline, before taking off our climbing gear and finishing the trudge up to the summit The Big T. Awaiting at the top was the standard July fare, including summit signs, selfie sticks and trail-runners in Colorado flag bikinis. Kelso Ridge was a popular route choice on this Friday, and it was cool to watch party after party come up, basking in their accomplishment.

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Thanks to Speth and Adam for yet another fun day out. Southpaw Couloir isn’t climbed much for a good reason — unless conditions are perfect, that ever-present cornice is a monster. If you catch it right, however, I could see it being an absolute classic. I suspect that only happens for a week or two every couple years, though. Happy hunting.

P.S. Prrrrrrrrrrrrrrrdddddddddd.

A Bond Between Strangers (Horseshoe Mountain/Boudoir Couloir)

There’s no point in denying it: Horseshoe Mountain’s Boudoir Couloir is a flat-out classic. I’d already climbed it in 2011 as one of my first snow climbs, but when Speth suggested it for this weekend, I had no qualms about returning. This April is all about getting into shape for the Skillet Glacier, anyway. If a route has snow and vertical gain, I probably won’t say no.

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We were forced to park about a mile short of the standard starting point at Leavick due to lingering snow. A few poor souls had tried to drive a bit farther. Carnage ensued. Three-foot-deep tire tracks, busted wooden boards, a wrecked tow strap and, of course, their abandoned vehicles. All that to avoid walking an extra five minutes. Human nature is a funny thing.

Speth and I were walking by about 7:30 a.m. My memory had blocked out the difficulties of the approach, and for some reason I thought it would only take us about an hour to reach the base of the couloir. In reality, including the extra slog to Leavick, it took us three. A little less than a mile from Leavick is a road that branches off left and crosses Fourmile Creek. Follow it as it switchbacks up a couple hundred feet to break treeline, then make a straight shot for Horseshoe’s namesake amphitheater. Many options exist to reach the base of the couloir. Gerry Roach’s guidebook suggests angling to hiker’s right around two small lakes. As the lakes remained solidly frozen, we took a more direct line straight across.

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We reached the base of the couloir around 10:30 a.m. I’d normally be nervous about starting an east-facing spring snow climb so late, but the temperatures were mild and a stiff breeze kept everything firm. Speth hadn’t even used snowshoes for the approach. While gearing up with crampons, helmets and ice axes, we were joined by fellow 14ers.com members BKS (Brian) and eskermo. Brian also had his 2-year-old labradoodle, Charley.

Being an English nerd, I was absolutely tickled by the company of a poodle named Charley. Surely his owner must be a Steinbeck fan? Actually, no — it was a total coincidence. Charley was a joyful companion, and I used the encounter for the title of this blog entry. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, famous novelist John Steinbeck (Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, etc.) wrote a travelogue in the 1960s about a year-long road trip across America with his full-size poodle, Charley. Travels with Charley is one of my favorite travel books. Contained within is the quote, “Dogs are a bond between strangers.” How true is that?

We started switchbacking up the apron on perfect snow. Our boots were sinking in to about lace-level and the crampons bit hard. It was much more relaxing than the first time I’d climbed Boudoir on bulletproof névé.

An intermittent old boot-pack existed in the middle of the couloir. I tried to use it at times, but given the moderate angle and great snow conditions, switchbacking was much more efficient.

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In addition to being an aesthetic line, what makes Boudoir special is the spectacular setting. Horseshoe Mountain’s entire east face is a half-moon of near-vertical cliffs. Boudoir offers the only easy passage. Rest breaks were passed giddily spying other potential snow, ice and mixed lines in the breathtaking amphitheater.

What else makes Boudoir a must-do? The direct finish over a mini-cornice onto the summit plateau. Immediately above the exit is a remarkably intact old mining cabin, which we crawled inside to escape the increasing wind. Views of the Sawatch, Sangre de Cristo, Tenmile and Mosquito ranges did not disappoint. We ditched our packs and most of our gear inside the cabin before strolling over to tag the true summit.

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Normally I would have suggested walking off the standard Northeast Slopes route, but the Skillet Glacier will require downclimbing snow up to and including 50 degrees. I figured I might as well practice walking down moderate/steep snow as much as possible. It was still a bit firm for easy plunge-stepping. Once we were through the constriction and the angle began to relent, we popped off our crampons and glissaded the rest of the way in a matter of minutes.

We followed our tracks out and reached the car only two hours after leaving the summit. Glissading is awesome. The wind had even kept the snow remarkably firm for an April afternoon. No waist-deep postholing in snowshoes necessary. A perfect spring day. We did have a bit of difficulty finding a dining option in Fairplay given the Easter holiday and my low-carb kick this month, but we eventually settled in at McCall’s Park Bar. Let’s just say a 1/4-pound buffalo burger with no bun and a side salad is no match for a post-hike appetite. It’s going to be a long month…

Third Time’s the Charm on Mt. Princeton

MOUNTAIN: Mt. Princeton (14,197′)
ROUTE: East Slopes
RT GAIN: 5,400′
RT DISTANCE: 13.25 miles
RT TIME: 10.75 hours
PARTNERS: Jerry, Adam, Shawn, Joel

Mt. Princeton had become something of a winter nemesis. I tried it in early January 2014 prior to shoulder surgery, but the recurring dislocations that necessitated said repair left me woefully out of shape. I only made it as far as subsummit “Tigger Peak,” a mile or two and nearly 1,000′ short of the summit. Princeton was also the plan three weeks ago, but I was forced to bail last-minute for a variety of reasons.

Third time’s the charm, right? I roped a few poor souls — Shawn, Joel, Adam and Jerry — into yet another winter attempt Sunday, Feb. 15. Most of the Colorado high country still looked more like early fall than mid-February, and with the weather pattern changing toward more frequent snow beginning this week, I figured I better poach an easy winter summit while the option remained.

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The group started from the lower trailhead at 6:45 a.m., faced with a few miles of road walking before reaching the standard summer starting point. Snowshoes weren’t necessary and the distance melted away. As the day grew warmer and the sun burned off the early-morning clouds, some of us even found ourselves in baselayers. Of course, with a storm scheduled to roll in during the afternoon and high winds obvious up high, we knew it wouldn’t last.

The rest of us caught up to Jerry, who’d dashed ahead at superhuman speed, at the only real decision point we’d face all day. The road continues to above 12,000′, but the summer route leaves it on a good trail that traverses across the face of “Tigger Peak” to the low point in the saddle between “Tigger” and Princeton. Most winters, avalanche danger dictates forgoing the summer trail and going up and over “Tigger” instead, at the expense of some extra mileage and about 800′ of added elevation gain. The minimal snow levels convinced us to take the easier option and stick to the trail.

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The “easier option” was still kind of a pain. The Mt. Princeton trail consists of large, loose, annoying talus. Add a foot or two of powder on top of it and the going becomes very slow and tedious. Jerry continued leading the way as the weather began its preordained decline.

Princeton’s summit looked tantalizingly close. Almost every winter trip report I read had a huge round-trip time that didn’t align with the 13.25 mile/5,400′ stats. Sometimes it even took people 20+ hours! Now, I understand why. Most of terrain above 12,000′ is simply horrid. If we’d had to deal with trailbreaking in snowshoes and going over “Tigger,” it likely would have taken us much longer as well. The path becomes more and more intermittent, replaced with steep scree, loose talus and ankle-breaking murder holes. The final push to the summit took about twice as long as I expected at first glance. We finally topped out, one after another, between 1-1:20 p.m.

The forecasted storm was arriving in earnest. I stayed on the summit only long enough to eat a sandwich and snap three pictures. No one else bothered. Clouds and light snow had already rolled in, with the wind whipping around at 30 or 40 miles per hour.

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On such hideous terrain, the descent took almost as long as the climb. I think we all wanted to kneel and kiss the ground when we were finally back on the solid trail. As nice as that was, regaining the road was even better. We rested for a while at the junction to eat, drink and adjust layers, tasks we’d neglected for a few hours in the deteriorating elements.

Thus replenished, the stroll down the road was lighthearted and victorious. The storm produced a veritable whiteout at times, with an inch of snow falling per hour and visibility reduced to a couple hundred feet. Safely on the road, however, we had little to worry about. We spaced out a bit, with the last person returning to the vehicles around 5:30 p.m. It’s not often you can do a long winter daytrip without needing a headlamp. Not to say we were especially quick — just lucky with the conditions.

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We tried to stop at Eddyline Brewing for a post-climb meal, but shockingly there was a 45-minute wait on a Sunday night in the middle of winter. We instead visited a Mexican joint down the street on Joel’s excellent suggestion, which hit the spot just the same. Thanks to Joel, Adam, Jerry and Shawn for a fun day. Now, back to ice climbing…

Getting the Band Back Together (Marble Mountain)

Marble Mountain (13,266′)

ROUTE: East Ridge
RT DISTANCE: ~7 miles
RT GAIN: ~3,500′
RT TIME: ~7.5 hours
CLIMBER(S): Dan McCool, Ben Shulman, Jeff Golden

I’ve always held the belief that the people with whom you share the trail are the best part about hiking. Lifelong bonds are made in the hills. The common goals, the shared risks, the glorious successes and the crushing defeats — mountaineering pulls us together in a truly profound way.

I’ve formed one of those lifelong bonds with Dan. Ben, too, but we used to live together so I’ve had my fill. Though our priorities have shifted and we’re no longer able to meet in the mountains nearly every weekend, when we get together it’s always as if nothing has changed. That goes for most of the folks I regularly hiked with in 2011-2012 while we all raced toward the 14er finish line. Unfortunately, as it often does, life has taken us in different directions.

When the idea materialized of a reunion hike on Marble Mountain, I knew it was something not to be missed. Prior commitments and injuries got in the way of it being fully attended, but still, getting out with Ben and Dan is about as perfect a day in the mountains as a man can reasonably expect. It’s guaranteed to be a memorable outing.

We arrived at the Rainbow Trail/South Colony Lakes Road junction late Friday night after a necessary pitstop at Phantom Canyon Brewery. Terrified of the swarms of ATV-riding Bubbas in camouflage, Dan and I opted to sleep in the back of his truck. Ben, the bravest of our trio, pitched his bivy sack off to the side of the road. Expecting an easy day, we decided on a gentlemanly start of 7:30 a.m.

The morning began with a short jaunt in the wrong (…but right…) direction on the Rainbow Trail. It’s an odd feeling walking away from the mountain you’re trying to summit. Luckily it’s less than ¼-mile before you take a right onto a climber’s trail and start hiking up Marble’s East Ridge.

The trail is strong in places, and impossible to follow in others. The line is pretty obvious, however; as long as you’re hiking upward and staying near the ridge crest, you can’t go wrong. Good thing, too, as a heinous amount of deadfall had us weaving every which way. We were sporting dozens of new nicks and cuts by the time we finally emerged from treeline. Oh well. Bushwhacking builds character.

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Snow was unavoidable for a couple hundred feet after treeline, about six inches over slick tundra and wet rocks. This was the most tedious part of the route. Higher on the ridge the wind had blown it mostly clear, and in many ways it was reminiscent of summer. Dry tundra, T-shirts, sweat and size 14 boys jorts.

The walk to the summit probably took an hour longer than it should have thanks to the copious amount of Crestones photos that needed to be taken. Marble is a benevolent lump of tundra, requiring only a very minor false summit before the ridge ends in the true highpoint. After drooling over the Crestones all morning, we were pleasantly surprised to see that the views in the other directions were just as breathtaking.

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It was cool to see Dan reach the top. He hadn’t been on a high-altitude summit hike in nearly a year, and he wore a child-like expression of wonder on his face. It was a great reminder not to take these adventures for granted. Going out most weekends, it’s easy to lose perspective on what drew us to the hills in the first place. Dan’s awe and joy after a lengthy time away were palpable.

We lounged on the summit for about an hour, drinking a couple beers and watching a storm roll in over Kit Carson and the Crestones. If possible, the clouds made the Sangres even more beautiful.

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We started down the deceptively long ridge just as the first flurries were starting to fly. We stayed well ahead of the full brunt of the storm. Regardless, it was simply a tundra stroll back to treeline and the trail. Many stops were again necessary for even more photos of the Crestones.

With a light mist falling back at the truck, we decided to delay our planned post-hike beers until back in Westcliffe. South Colony Road was much rougher than I remembered, but we made it safely down the 2.5 miles to the 2WD trailhead without incident. We got to-go pizzas from Tony’s (the Western is the best BBQ chicken pizza I’ve ever had) and popped open our beers at an undisclosed and probably illegal location with great views of the Sangres. Great ending to a much-needed jaunt with old friends!

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A Winter Preview on Quandary’s West Ridge

Quandary Peak: West Ridge (Fall 2014)

Saturday was one of those times everything just comes together.

As of early afternoon Friday, I still had no idea what I wanted to hike over the weekend. I would have loved to make the 14ers.com Fall Gathering in Lake City, but with a three-day trip to Vegas right around the corner, I wanted to spend a bit of time Sunday at home with Kate, Remy, yardwork and Carolina Panthers football.

What I did have was interest from two of my favorite climbing partners, Ryan Kushner and Matt Speth. We bounced ideas back-and-forth until it seemed unlikely we’d ever reach a consensus. I was starting to resign myself to a mellow solo hike when a mutually interesting goal finally emerged: the West Ridge of Quandary Peak.

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Ryan also recruited a few of his other friends, local climbing celebrities Alan Arnette (fresh back from success on K2), Jim Davidson (author of The Ledge) and Chris Tomer (FOX31/Channel 2 meteorologist). They agreed to join after their original goal of the Bells Traverse fell through due to last week’s snowfall. It was my first time hiking with all three of them, though I’ve rubbed shoulders and shaken hands at various events over the years.

We opted for a gentlemanly start of 8:30 a.m. Saturday. The route generally takes 6-8 hours roundtrip, and with no more fear of monsoonal thunderstorms, there wasn’t much reason to set an alarm for zero-dark-thirty. Ryan, Matt and I met Alan and Jim at the trailhead and decided to set up a car shuttle, leaving one vehicle at the base of the East Ridge and piling into the other to head to the Blue Lakes Dam near the start of the West Ridge.

The trail was mostly dry as we followed it up into a hanging basin toward the saddle between Quandary Peak and Fletcher Mountain. The majority of our time was spent discussing a potential fundraiser event and spying ice lines, which are starting to form all over the high country.

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Chris was waiting for us on the saddle after starting early to tack on Fletcher Mountain. Most of the route came into view for the first time, with a largely mellow-looking ridge interrupted by a few daunting rock spires. The top — and the route’s two cruxes — remained out of sight beyond a false summit.

Easy scrambling and narrow Class 2 sections led to an old mining trail on the north side of the peak. I used the mental break to chat with Jim about The Ledge and reminisce with he and Speth about our Rainier experiences. Once over the dominant false summit, the cruxes came into view and our minds returned to the task at hand.

A Winter Preview on Quandary's West Ridge

A Winter Preview on Quandary's West Ridge

Snow conditions dictated that we stick to the ridge. Easier options exist in the summer by dropping down a ways, but the mountains had received a decent dump of snow earlier in the week. The north face in particular looked almost winterish. With Alan, Ryan and Chris leading, we took turns negotiating several exposed Class 4 and 5.easy sections. The first summer “crux” was actually a nice break in the action. It was my first time on the route, and I naively thought we’d bypassed all the difficulties by the time the worst difficulties actually started around 14,000’.

After another short, narrow Class 2 ridge walk, we found ourselves going up and over several spires. The last one required a steep 15-foot  Class 4 downclimb with a couple long steps to reach the relative safety of a lofty notch. From there we could see the second summer crux, which was said to be the most difficult section of the route. We were well to climber’s right of it, on the ridge proper. An ascending traverse across snowy Class 3/4 ledges put us back on track right as the climbing laid back to easy Class 2 walking.

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The wind had howled steadily between 15-25 miles per hour most of the day, and near the summit it nearly doubled. We staggered the last 100 yards to the highest point and gratefully cowered in a wind shelter to eat, drink and rest.

We stayed on top for about 15 minutes, snapping a couple group shots before heading down the standard East Ridge route. A few weeks had passed since I’d last visited the mountains, and seeing them coated with snow brought pure joy. Summer climbing is enjoyable in its own way, but I won’t miss the crowds. There’s also nothing more uplifting than looking out at a sea of white-capped peaks in all directions. It’s the definition of beauty.

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The walk down was uneventful. We encountered 15-20 other hikers making their way up or down the East Ridge, a far cry from the 100s that tackle Quandary every summer Saturday. The car shuttle ended up being a godsend, as most of us were pretty wiped from spending so much time in the wind on exposed terrain. Not to mention, my mountaineering boots had turned my feet to mush. It was my first time wearing anything but trail runners in months. Time to toughen up.

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It felt good to succeed on a fairly challenging route after a summer spent on Class 1, Class 2 and easy Class 3 peaks due to my ongoing recovery from shoulder surgery. It’s mostly a mental thing now, and Quandary’s West Ridge was a big step forward. I just hope I’ll be full-go by ice season, which looks to be starting here shortly…

#iceupson
#winteriscoming

Thanks for reading.

A Walk to Remember (Mt. Harvard)

Mt. Harvard – South Slopes

RT Distance: 14 miles
RT Gain: 4,600′
RT Time: 6.5 hours
Climber(s): Jeff (SurfNTurf)

Mt. Harvard has crooned its siren song in my direction all summer. Of all the 14ers, it was the one I’d least-recently visited, way back in March 2011. I’d also never seen Horn Fork Basin in summer, and because I’d forgotten my camera during that March excursion, Harvard was one of the few 14ers on which I lacked a summit photo. I’ve even toyed with the idea of writing a TR for every 14er. All of those reasons are good and all, but in the end, who needs an excuse to go hiking on a gorgeous summer Saturday?

I woke up at 2:30 a.m. to meet colokeith and a few others for a climb of Kendall Mountain. I’d only managed an hour or two of sleep, and I was so tired I actually felt nauseous. An apologetic text to Keith later, I was back in bed with a new alarm set for 5 a.m. Finally getting in my car, I had no firm idea of where I was going. The I-70/C-470 junction forced me into a decision. Knowing that the forecast in the Sawatch was best, and that Harvard was near the top of my list to repeat, I chose to head down to U.S. 285 and streak toward Buena Vista.

Arriving at an overflowing parking lot at 8 a.m. is an odd feeling. I was always a stickler for starting early, and I still am when it’s warranted, but the forecast was good and the plan was to move fast (for a hiker; I don’t usually run). It actually worked out pretty well. If you want some solitude on a summer 14er, just start super early or super late. I only saw 6-7 people all day until I caught the peloton just short of the summit block.

Walking along the initial trail was like a jaunt down memory lane. Sadly, many of the friends I made that weekend of the Winter Gathering 2011 aren’t around anymore. It was the first time I hiked with James Graham (aka Fletch, now living in California), who would go on to become one of my favorite partners. Terry Mathews, Jim DiNapoli and Steve Gladbach, all three of whom I was encountering for the first time, are no longer with us. I’ll never forget the feeling I had when Steve approached our tent. I was like a 14-year-old girl meeting Justin Bieber. It was my first winter camping trip, and Harvard/Columbia were only something like Nos. 15-16 on the 14ers list for me. I was new to the game, and Steve was a legend.

Because it turned into a reflective walk, I’m going to include some of Jim’s pictures from the March 2011 trip – with credit to the talented photographer, of course.

The trail was surprisingly flat, nothing like I remembered it was we snowshoed in at dusk with 60-pound packs three years prior. The miles melted away. It would be hard to get lost on the well-marked route, but when in doubt, take a right and follow signs for Horn Fork. Campsites start to appear pretty low and continue on up to the highest reaches of treeline. There are some gorgeous spots up there, and I saw a ton of people taking advantage of it. Horn Fork Basin is definitely going on my list of places for a summer overnight. Try as I might, I couldn’t identify the exact meadow that served as base in 2011. The trail seemed to stay too far to hiker’s left.

Breaking timberline, the well-defined trail remained fairly gradual. There are some sections where you have to walk through a veritable willow tunnel, but just look over your shoulder at the stunning views of Mt. Yale every few minutes and the misery will fade.

The route finally steepens at a rocky headwall. After talus hopping for a few hundred feet, you arrive back on a dirt path in a high upper basin. The remaining trail to the blocky summit becomes obvious. There’s a short reprieve on flat ground before it gets very steep as you slog up toward the ridge. I remembered this section being a moderate avalanche concern back in 2011. We took turns sprinting up to the ridge as fast as possible, and then followed the ridge proper instead of the trail down on the face.

About 500 feet short of the summit, I caught the main body of climbers. I’d almost thought Harvard wouldn’t be crowded. Wrong! The standard summer conga line ensued. It wasn’t too bad except for a bottleneck up the Class 2+/3 section right at the base of the summit. It was much more straightforward than my previous ascent, when snow covered the obvious path and we faced a terrifyingly exposed scramble to the top.

My goal had been to top out in three hours or less, but it took me roughly 3:15. I’m still carrying a bit of surgery weight and I haven’t gotten out as much as usual this summer. Ah well. Good motivation to train harder. I lingered on the summit for 20-30 minutes, snapped the coveted #summitselfie, and started down just as graupel was beginning to fall at 11:45 a.m.

As usual, once I finally gave in and put on my rain gear, the precipitation stopped within minutes. I thought about jogging down the trail to see what kind of RT time I was capable of, but I was enjoying the hike too much. Long-forgotten memories from 2011 came flooding back. It was great to remember friends and experiences that seem a lifetime ago. Not to mention, Horn Fork Basin is a pretty special place.

I returned to the car at 2:30 p.m., roughly 6.5 hours RT with a very casual descent pace. I had to stay in the hills (not complaining) to lead a Colorado Mountain Club hike Sunday, so after a pizza and a couple beers at Eddyline, I set up camp at the free dispersed sites across from the Avalanche Gulch TH. I sipped a few Dale’s, made a small fire, and read Anatoli Boukreev’s Above the Clouds in between periods of continued reflection. I’m a social hiker and I enjoy exploring the mountains with friends, but sometimes, a little solitude can cleanse the soul.